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McIlroy, Clark and Schauffele share Players Championship lead

Rory McIlroy sets to play on the 3rd tee during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship golf tournament
Rory McIlroy sets to play on the 3rd tee during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship golf tournament
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Miami: Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy matched a course record with 10 birdies to share the lead with reigning US Open champion Wyndham Clark and Tokyo Olympic champion Xander Schauffele in Thursday's darkness-halted opening round of The Players Championship.


Schauffele fired a bogey-free, seven-under-par 65 to stand level with McIlroy, who hit two balls in the water, and Clark, who birdied three of the last four holes at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.


"It's always nice to go bogey-free round at Sawgrass," Schauffele said after his lowest-ever round at the famed course. "Just got a couple good breaks, made a couple of nice putts and all in all a good start."


The 30-year-old American, who hasn't won since the 2022 Scottish Open, found nine of 14 fairways in his first bogey-free round of 15 at the Players.


"The bogeys, or the scares of a bogey, come when you miss the fairways," Schauffele said. "The rough is pretty thick. Shockingly thick in some cases. You've just got to keep it on the short grass."


World number two McIlroy, the 2019 Players winner, stumbled to a 76 last Sunday at Bay Hill but bounced back well. "Overall I'm really happy," McIlroy said. "Much improved from Sunday at Bay Hill. Put a lot of work in over the last three days. Feel like I saw a lot of progress out there.


"Iron play was much improved and that's something I've worked a lot on. I hit balls for five hours on Monday to try and figure it all out and I feel like I got somewhere... Just really happy to see some iron shots go close again."


Fifth-ranked Clark, who won last month at Pebble Beach, birdied four of the first seven holes despite his lone bogey at the fourth then closed strong to share the lead with birdie putts of 20 feet at 15, three feet at the par-5 16th and 14 feet at the famed par-3 17th island hole.


"It wasn't the best irons I've ever hit but I had a lot of control over the ball. I was putting the ball in the spots you needed to be and I just plodded my way around the course," Clark said. "Overall really solid day and something to build on."


There were nine golfers still on the course when play was suspended for darkness, none with more than three holes to finish. American Jimmy Stanger was best at 5-under and putting for par on his penultimate hole.


New Zealand's Ryan Fox had the first back-to-back eagles in Players history -- an eagle at 16 and an ace at 17 on the way to a 69. "It was a nice gap wedge," Fox said of his ace. "I was pretty chuffed to look up and see it going down the flag. A little bit of luck for it to come down the slope and go back in, but I'm certainly not complaining. It's such an iconic hole."


England's Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 2022 US Open champion, and Canadian Nick Taylor shared third on 66 with top-ranked defending champion Scottie Scheffler another shot adrift.


- 'Nice way to start' -


McIlroy, who also began at the 10th, birdied his first three holes -- the 10th on a putt from just inside six feet, the par-5 11th on a tap-in after reaching the green in two and the 12th after landing his approach inside five feet of the hole.


"That second shot on 10 and hitting it in close proved I could do what I was doing in practice under the heat of competition," McIlroy said. "It was a nice way to start."


After back-to-back birdies he found water off the 18th tee and made bogey. After birdies at four and six he splashed down again off the seventh tee on the way to double bogey before a closing 17-foot birdie putt.


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